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How communities can stop gentrification from erasing GTA culture

April 16, 2020 by Stacy Lee Kong with files from Sajae Elder

Graphic image of man and woman walking through a gentrifying neighbourhood
Illustration by Vivian Rosas

To maintain the uniqueness of GTA neighbourhoods, residents’ voices need to be heard

Little Jamaica has changed. The neighbourhood—which stretches along Eglinton Avenue West between Allen Road and Keele Street—has been facing an evolution, fuelled largely by the Eglinton Connects plan, which includes mid-rise property development and light rail transit (LRT) construction that started in 2014. “The Eglinton Connects plan is meant to transform the entire corridor,” says Romain Baker, board chair of Black Urbanism TO, an organization that highlights the contributions of Black Ontarians in the building of the Greater Toronto Area, and advocates for the cultural preservation of neighbourhoods like Little Jamaica across the city. “It will mainly be around where the LRT will be running and will really change the look and feel of Eglinton.”  

For many long-time residents and small businesses, development like this puts the culture of the neighbourhood at risk.  

“It [used to be] very different. It was lively. There was music every day of the week from every direction and always busy,” says Natty B, co-owner of TreaJah Isle, a record shop and juice bar that has sat on Eglinton just west of Allen Road for almost three decades. “It’s still here in some ways, but it’s not the same. There are all those shops close to Dufferin that are closed, and…there’s barely any more street parking. People barely want to come down here anymore because they see it as a hassle.”  

The changes Natty describes can be attributed to gentrification, which is when low-income neighbourhoods transition to higher-income ones, often losing the cultural heritage that made them unique along the way. Little Jamaica is still in the early stages of the process, but it isn’t the only area in Toronto dealing with this issue—Parkdale, Leslieville and the Junction have all experienced the stereotypical influx of condos, high-end coffee shops and rising rents, too, as do neighbourhoods that don’t get as much attention, like the Greater Golden Mile in Scarborough and Villaways in North York.   

The impact on existing residents is significant. “We know that as neighbourhoods gentrify, they can lose their local character, and sometimes the history of the area gets buried under the ‘new,’” says Alex Dow, director of community connections at United Way Greater Toronto. What’s more, gentrification often makes these areas too expensive, which means existing residents—who are responsible for the culture that makes a neighbourhood so attractive to development in the first place—are gradually pushed out.   

Or not so gradually, in certain cases. In North York, residents of Villaways, a Toronto community housing development near Leslie Street and Sheppard Avenue East, have been displaced from their homes for three years already; their townhouses were torn down to make way for a “revitalized” site that will replace 121 rent-geared-to-income homes, plus an additional 498 market-value condos, a new playground, amenity rooms and “enhanced access to the Don Valley park network,” according to Toronto Community Housing’s website. When they move into their new homes, which is currently expected to happen sometime in 2021, their neighbourhood won’t even have the same name; it will be called Leslie Nymark, instead.  

Being displaced has been tough on the community, says Nicole Marcano, a project manager at ArtStarts, a non-profit organization that uses art to encourage social change, and a resident of Villaways herself. It’s not just because they miss home. “We have been relocated to a neighborhood with high levels of gun violence,” she says. “Yes, we wanted to have better–looking places—some [Villaways townhouses] were full of pests and the buildings were dilapidated—but at what cost? People are worried about their safety.”   

ArtStarts has worked in Villaways since 2007 and has continued to offer programming to residents while they are displaced, including a series of workshops and events meant to keep them connected and engaged with their former neighbours. At one workshop, youth collaborated on wall murals featuring visions of their future neighbourhood. “It wasn’t necessarily how it will look according to the builders’ plan. It was a futuristic presentation of what we wanted it to look like,” Marcano says.  

Each person’s vision was different, but they all centred around the residents’ wants and needs. “It’s important so that residents have an outlet to express their feelings and emotions,” she says. “Because it is a very challenging process.”  

Keeping a focus on existing residents is also one of the key ways neighbourhoods can maintain their character. “That’s what will allow available resources to be used effectively. And it can be something they own, rather than people coming from outside saying, ‘Hey, this is what you need,’” she says.   

Dow agrees. “Community voice is critical to ensure that development benefits not only new residents but also existing residents, [especially] those community members that may face barriers,” he says. “Often consultation processes are not designed to include folks that might come from another country or whose first language may not be English. When communities are transformed by investment, it is critical that those who know the neighbourhood best—those living there—are able to influence the neighbourhood’s future direction.” 

At the opposite end of the city from Little Jamaica, Greater Golden Mile—the stretch of Eglinton Avenue East between Victoria Park Avenue and Birchmount Road—is also in the early stages of gentrification. Real estate developers are showing increased interest in the area, rents are on the rise and residents are concerned about evictions. Agencies have already started encouraging residents to speak up at community forums and meetings, and “what has emerged so far is a focus on ensuring that the neighbourhood remains affordable to local residents. In addition, the community has talked about ensuring that there are opportunities for local employment,” Dow says.  

Those strategies would be helpful in Little Jamaica, too. Black Urbanism TO hopes to work with the City of Toronto to create specific provisions that will keep the neighbourhood’s current residents and business owners in mind for the future: “Things like ensuring the ground floors of condo developments have retail spaces that can accommodate smaller independent businesses, not just big box chain stores, or providing affordable housing and rent controls,” says Baker. “If the city wants to ensure that this community thrives and can enrich Toronto, it could happen. It’s just a matter of political will and listening to the voices of residents.”  

Visitors to transitioning neighbourhoods also have a role to play. For one thing, they need to be aware of the living history of the community, which Baker says the city can encourage. He cites the popular Heritage Toronto tours of Little Jamaica, which happened in summer 2019, as an example. “I think there’s a lack of education and a lack of knowledge, so it’s our duty to tell our story,” he explains. “If we have a culture and heritage designation for the area, then that can be the framework that everything can conform to.”  

People from other areas of the city shouldn’t just be tourists driving through, either. If they want communities to thrive, they should be mindful of the impact their continued patronage can have on the community. One way to do that is to support the businesses that have been there all along. Natty says this is the key to keeping Little Jamaica alive. “You can still get your food…get your hair cut. People still need to come. They need to know that Little Jamaica is still here.”

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